Frank Stella

On Frank Stella’s Bali Pieces and more


                                                                                   In memory of Robert Rosenblum

                                                                                   (24 July 1927 – 6 December 2006)



In 2003 Frank Stella started work on a new series of sculptures which he entitled Bali Pieces. The series came to an end in 2006. The first piece, numbered FS 2003-1, is named taboehan; the title of the last, number FS 2006-17, is ngelawang. The work numbered FS 2006-18 already marks the beginning of the next series, the Malay Pieces. When Frank Stella showed the author a list of the works in both series, he noted on a yellow stickie: “These are Bali (bamboo) Pieces. The titles are vocabulary words (Balinese) + so have small letters to begin the title (words) e. q. dadap F. S. 2003-4.” On a second stickie, he noted (amongst other things): “The new Malay Pieces . . . begin @ F. S. 2006-18 Salayer. The Malay Pieces begin with capital letters as they are places, i. e. proper nouns.” The titles of the works in the first series are taken from explanatory texts written by Margaret Mead to accompany photographs by Gregory Bateson in Balinese Character. A Photographic Analysis which they jointly published in 1942. The places names used as titles for the more recent group of works come from an equally famous book, The Malay Archipelago. The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise by Alfred Russel Wallace and dedicated to Charles Darwin “not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship, but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and his works.”

Frank Stella’s sparse but precise information concerning his two most recent series suggests that he must have had in mind a clear concept of their aesthetic parameters as works of art and that, as an artist of some experience, still remains faithful to the premises he set out in the winter of 1959/60 on the subject of “how to make a painting.” Indeed in 1991 he pointed out that his attitude to art had barely changed since 1959: “The way I look at paintings today doesn’t appear to be very different from the way I saw them 30 years ago.” In the same sense that he never used to be content merely to wonder on his own account what art is and how paintings are made, he still questions his own activity in terms of its methods and methodology. In his case the artistic outcome is not founded on intuition alone, but is also crucially shaped by his intellectual response to the constraints that are intrinsic to the work process. Whereas the young Frank Stella found a way “to do something” with the “spatial” problems of “relational painting,” and specifically “the balancing of the various parts with and against each other,” as he set out on his career as a professional artist he felt compelled to address his own status and the professionalism of a work process that required both determination and constant, exhausting application, almost as though the artist were engaging in spiritual exercises. Later Frank Stella commented that it seemed to him “as if the stripes, the repeated stripes, had more to do with a Beckett-like situation than with a large empty canvas, for instance.” The fact that he makes a connection between his own repeated stripes and the repeated remarks in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, which was premiered in New York in fall 1958, indicates that he was concerned at the time not only with the question of form, but also with his own existential position regarding his choice of motifs. 


Accordingly, when Frank Stella made his Black Paintings he not only transformed a painterly concept into an immutable, absolute form that has become a permanent feature of our collective visual memory, he also conveyed—through the picture titles—something of his thinking about the status of the artist. For, as Robert Rosenblum has said, the titles of the works invoke a “wide spectrum of human sorrows, from New York tenements (Arundel Castle) and a Chicago cemetery (Getty Tomb) to a London insane asylum (Bethlehem’s Hospital) and the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz (Arbeit Macht Frei). Such elucidations helped to deny the usual early response to these paintings—that they were thoroughly hermetic and cerebral—and to confirm the growing revelation that they reflect an awareness of such universal gloom that they may even end up as younger-generation counterparts to the sober, life-denying mood of many of Rothko’s own late series paintings.” 


Almost fifty years later the titles of the first and last Bali Pieces confirm that in his approach Frank Stella was guided by much the same criteria as he had identified at the outset of his artistic career. At the time he outlined not only the artistic task he had set himself, he also touched on his own connections to the “real” world. In Balinese taboehan, meaning hornet’s nest, is also the name of a children’s game that involves dancing—like hornets—on a particular kind of sand drawing. With this choice of title the artist indirectly declares his intention to arrange pictorial elements in an existing schema in such a way that the dynamics of their innate energy can come into their own. And by choosing the title ngelawang—a Balinese term for opposition or resistance to decisions made by the commune—he alludes to the independence of his own creative life that does not know the adjective routine and that bows to no external expectations. 

On the face of it the title Bali Pieces may have arisen from Frank Stella’s experiments with bamboo, a material that he had not used before and is indispensable to life on Bali. Not only can it be worked, most importantly it can also be bent and Stella has used it for a number of sculptures, including the relief dadap, named after a species of tree that can be propagated simply by breaking off a section, planting it anywhere and waiting for it to take root and grow. It is therefore hardly surprising that the dadap is used in numerous Balinese rituals. For Stella the appeal of this tubular material lies in its distinctly “graphic” character and its potential—like steel and aluminum tubes—as a linear pictorial element that can be formed at will. And so it is in this series, made up predominantly of hanging sculptures, that different lengths and diameters of steel tubes and rounded steel rods flex and bend into elegant—sometimes brittle—curves or curl into spirals and clews with a small number of integrated planar or three-dimensional pictorial elements. While some forms follow the natural flow of the rounded steel or the tubes, others go against the flow, constraining it or causing it to come to rest or to be resolved at a fixed point of sorts.


Although the sculptures are objects in their own right and truly spatial, they question their own three-dimensionality, all the more so since mass and volume do not feature per se, which in turn means that the centre of a piece is hard to identify and may shift depending on the viewpoint or may even appear not to exist at all. All too often it is not located within the work but is to found, eccentrically, outside the piece; the point of suspension is never identical with the work. Evidently the sculptures also never constitute a space within a space, but instead—as El Lissitzky put it as far back as 1920—contribute to the “construction of the space.” For “space is not there for our eyes, it’s not a picture; it’s for people to live in.” It was in this vein that the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, in their Realistic Manifesto of 1920, sought to restore “to sculpture the line as direction.”


This art-historical background, which Stella was very familiar with, sheds a useful light on a statement he made in 1999: “Modern sculpture has quite rightly—quite proudly defined itself by its ability to draw in space. I am quite happy and not  little bit proud to say at the end of the 20th century after nearly 100 years of modernism . . . I am able to paint in space with steel.” In the Bali Pieces he playfully puts this to the test, and he could have been referring to these pieces when he said of some earlier works: they have “more than two dimensions, but not quite three.” On a formal level they veer between painting and sculpture. 


In addition to the connections with early twentieth-century abstract Constructivist Modernism, this series also references the culture of the people of Bali. From his reading of the standard work on Bali by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Stella discovered an affinity between cultural and artistic traditions on Bali and the praxis of European and American Modernism. Bateson and Mead describe in words and images a society where the individual strives to become “whole” through natural equilibrium and inner serenity, acquiring and testing out the necessary skills in a variety of cultural practices so that he or she can withstand the pressure of overwhelming forces and the impact of unexpected blows, and can ultimately reconcile the predictable and the unpredictable. The act of learning to walk upright and to maintain one’s balance became synonymous with the advance of civilization (fig.). Rather than running about in an enclosed area, small children in Bali learn to walk on a fixed, horizontal bamboo pole positioned at a height to suit the child’s size. Then when the child is left to its own devices, he or she can move around freely. The child learns to behave with complete independence and to experience its own body both as a single entity and as the joint functioning of perfectly connected limbs. 


In the same way that fixed spatial limitations are unknown in Balinese culture, for Frank Stella the image, in the form of a painting or a sculpture, can never be a space within a space. Curving forwards or indicating depths, its outer limits are always open, never defined. Forms—be they linear, planar or three-dimensional—seem to float and flow. As Frederick (Friedrich) J. Kiesler wrote in 1965 in another context, albeit entirely relevant to the work of Frank Stella, “The environment becomes equally as important as the object, if not more so, because the object breathes into the surrounding and also inhales the realities of the environment no matter in what space, close or wide apart, open air or indoor.” Although by their nature the Bali Pieces attain a high level of pictorial expression, their porosity means that they remain haptically neutral.





Frank Stella first evolved this kind of tension in the Black Paintings. And with these paintings he took the first step towards achieving a pictorial structure that looks iconic although it resists any kind of “empirical commensurability.” This was, in effect, his riposte to the apparently modal pictorial forms found in Abstract Expressionist painting and Color Field painting, although in these instances the painting hand, as in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, was entirely absent or, as in Barnett Newman’s color fields was prevented from coming expressively into its own. These same works create the impression that chance was the main factor in their making and suggest somewhat indeterminate associations which collapse even as they are evoked. In this situation the indeterminacy of form and space instigates their own never-ending metamorphosis. By contrast, in Frank Stella’s work the compositional logic imbues the pictorial elements with a similar level of dynamic energy to that found in the figures in the eventful tableaus of figurative painting. As he later implied, he was left with no alternative other than to skin the art that he had inherited. Jackson Pollock had already taken this route in 1949 in  Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949, now in the Stuttgarter Staatsgalerie. Without damaging the canvas, he excised irregular sections from the multiple colors of the informel-polyfocal all-over of his fabric paintings in an effort to use the “cut outs” to add another, higher dimension—in his eyes, a purely formal quality—to the indefinable background depths of his paintwork. The resulting relief was to extend optically and haptically into the space between the picture surface and the viewer. Barnett Newman took this pictorial idea a stage further and, tapping into the traditional reception of Romantic art, and reinterpreted it in terms of “the sublime” as it may be found in a work of art. His aim was that a sense of the presence of the work should become one with the viewer’s experience of space-time and turn the “Self, terrible and constant” into the “subject matter of painting and sculpture.”


However, Frank Stella’s interest was not in this form of “acute subjectivism” but rather in the function of art as a complement to the Self. In late 1971, when Robert Rosenblum published his book on Frank Stella—the first monographic study—he boldly proposed that Stella’s work in the 1950s and 60s could not be pigeonholed in arid categories such as “Minimal Art, Hard-Edge, Color Field, Op, or Pop” and that one could justifiably “look ahead confidently to as much, even more, from Stella of future decades as we have had from the Stella of the 1960s.” And with hindsight it certainly does seem that the early work was merely the prelude to a mighty body of work extending across a vast terrain, an œuvre that is supremely at home in every genre and that in certain instances takes on dimensions that shatter preconceived notions of scale in the visual arts, even in the context of the United States of America where oversized formats have been widely used ever since the nineteenth century. 


Like the Old Masters in Europe, Frank Stella is equally at ease with both small and large formats and, like them, leaves his own unmistakable mark on any space. He excels not only in monumental painting but also in sculpture and in architecture, even if he has had little opportunity to realize his ideas with regard to the latter. While he has reconfirmed the difference between architecture and sculpture, he has also breathed new life into the potential for mutual exchange between the two genres. If it can be  said of any contemporary artist that he or she would be a match for the uomo universale of the Renaissance or of the Early Baroque, it has to be Frank Stella. And Robert Rosenblum has shown that with their  “stark reduction of pictorial means” the Black Paintings enter the realms of “high visual complication.” This is not only because they are self-evidently “fragments of a potentially larger whole” thus casting the rectangle of the painted surface in a new light, it is also due to their “free brushwork, creating subtly vibrant edges (not unlike Newman’s variations on an ostensibly straight line) that makes the fragile linear network of the white canvas shimmer with twinkling irregularities. Similarly, the initial opacity of the black paint tends to move in the opposite direction of a darkly absorbent and remote luminosity.” In 1960 William S. Rubin identified this vibrant quality as the source of the paintings’ “uncanny, magical presence” which he found so hypnotic. Nowadays it seems more appropriate to focus on the oscillating energy of these compositions which is what defines them as works of art at all. And it is only because the configuration of the various parts, in all their heterogeneity, has an innate logic of its own that they can fully develop a self-referential sphere of activity with its own unique dynamic.





No other modern artist has posited a complex of new pictorial issues with such enduring cogency as Frank Stella in his Black Paintings. Their “objectness” in effect confirms Paul Klee’s statement made as long ago as 1920 in his contribution to the book Creative Confessions where he declares that the work of art is “first and foremost genesis, it is never seen as a product.” In this Romantic sense, the work of art is both idiosyncratically convoluted and harmoniously ordered. Pollock, for one, persistently rejected any suggestion that his paintings were “chaotic.” Nowadays the informel fabric of his paintings is regarded as an example of a higher geometric order than that described by Euclid. But even Frank Stella’s early pictures do not conform to traditional geometry; on the contrary they undermine it by virtue of the fact that the artist negates its determinant function. Despite this, his artistic methods are diametrically opposed to those of his predecessor. Whereas Pollock applies his paint indirectly, Stella paints directly on the canvas.


Where Pollock turns to polyfocality, Stella  uses “deception.” This arises from the interstices between the stripes in the Black Paintings, which—as passive components—merely separate the latter. At the same time, these works would not be so disturbing if the artist had not underpinned the composition with axes that give it order. However, the artificiality of this configuration is secondary to the interaction of the passive lines and painted stripes. The painting creates the effect of a fixed entity that is based on an innately coherent system and comes into its own without external assistance. In Stella’s hands the painting has become a self-referential sphere with its own dynamics, which are heightened by the form of the composition. For the black stripes do not have the sharp edges that his friends would have preferred at the time. On the contrary, Frank Stella deliberately took advantage of the natural slight spread of the paint so that the interstices between the black bands should not appear overly linear. The fabric of Pollock’s composition is considerably more “graphic” in its effect and very distinct from the background. By virtue of Stella’s chosen technique, the interstices in his compositions are not merely the passive by-products of the painted stripes, but develop a life of their own. At a stroke all the pictorial forms within the painting come to enjoy the same status. No single element serves the others or is subordinate to them. Instead the various elements are of service to each other, interacting with and complementing each other. The outcome is a completely new pictorial structure wherein all the various components play their part as independent, absolute factors. 


Since its earliest days Frank Stella’s painting has been demonstratively painterly. For Jackson Pollock the canvas was only ever a necessary evil because colored lines and shapes will never simply cling together like a web in mid-air. And the format of his paintings is determined by the position of the edges of the picture, even if the forms extend “all over” and composition is polyfocal. Frank Stella also manages to sidestep this tension between ideal and result. Having taken a notional zero as his starting point, he establishes axioms for the painting in question and then goes on to realize them. It is only by this means that the resulting pictorial structure can be free of any kind of “empirical commensurability.” The painting is neither a “web” nor a geometric configuration. It is based neither on natural nor traditional forms such as the wealth of ornament that has been passed down through the ages. The rigorous, new pictorial logic that Stella has consistently evolved allows the pictorial elements to develop their own dynamics. Of course the first thing he had to do was to transform the “material quality of the canvas” into something “entirely visual.” Next, the picture plane had to become a zone that was not perceived in the same way as the visible world around us. Stella’s aim was to obviate any affinity with traditional notions of space. Cubism had already paved the way for a new kind of dimensionality within pictorial space; Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock and other painters had already extended the potential of pictorial space. But no-one had yet come up with a way of establishing a scale for invented pictorial forms that have no measurable features. For, as we know, any form developed in a person’s mind is without dimensions. It is an artistic hermaphrodite, and it is artificial. It was precisely this “missing link” that Stella was working on. Indeed the course of his artistic work can be seen in light of this. His goal was to establish the basis for a multi-dimensional artistic language that he himself has described as “aleatoric, erratic and sometimes unstable.”


The various dimensions of a painting are—precisely because of their innate potential for polyphony—predestined to resonate in and with each other, given that the pictorial space is constructed like a “gyroscope—a spinning sphere, capable of accommodating movement and tilt.” When Frank Stella compares the pictorial space to the interior of the gyroscope and imagines the viewer inside this sphere “experiencing the moment and motion of painting’s action” he is in fact taking the next logical step suggested by Paul Klee’s theory of art. The viewer experiences the picture in the same way that he or she might register a polyphonic composition. Paul Klee described this mode of reception as a form of “multi-dimensional contact” with the work. In the same sense that the “temporal art of music” can create “polyphony” with “resonant concision,” painting can do something very similar in space.


Stella’s Black Paintings were followed by his Aluminum Paintings. Abandoning the color black as a light-absorbing non-color, in the new series he replaced it with a highly reflective, distinctly material paint substance. This choice of paint gave him a new pictorial freedom. And it is as though “voids” could be cut of the picture format which is in any case determined solely by its own internal structures. Since these “voids” are by definition “indeterminate places” and invite speculation, Frank Stella seeks to avoid them. But as non-places they can also heighten the intensity and presence of the painting, which becomes brighter and lighter, but also, paradoxically, more corporeal. Without corners the painting becomes “eccentric” and the “shaped canvas” is born. And although it adopts the non-relationality of Abstract Expressionism, it is still a relational picture-object. The work’s thingness arises from the appeal of surface. The color is chosen specifically for its materiality and not as a dead substance. And it is not formed as such, for the qualities of its final form are already embedded within it: a notion harking back to the Romantic idea that an existing form comes into its own with human assistance. 


In his Copper Paintings and in the Dartmouth Paintings Frank Stella seems to be actively investigating the three dimensions of the work of art—line, color, tonality. In his Notched-V Paintings he combines two colors for the first time. The Running-V Paintings explore pictorial techniques such as folding, rotating, and mirroring forms. All three are closely related to methods use in musical composition. And what appears to be a wave movement is the result of geometric forms changing direction, creating a similar effect to that achieved by Morris Louis in his work by different artistic means. The Irregular Polygons are rightly regarded as a résumé of Frank Stella’s work up to that point. They recall modes of representation established in the stripe paintings—where there is in fact a limit to the changes of direction open to the two-directional forms, given that they should behave strictly according to the pictorial logic of the composition—and transfer these to more complex basic forms whose relations seem to rely on planimetric parameters. The forms relate to each other in a way that looks like the outcome of a subtle interaction whereas if they were subjected to a geometric process of some kind they would look much more as though they were locked into a particular relationship. Frank Stella uses geometry in the opposite sense. His disposition of triangle and parallelogram, which looks perfectly arbitrary at first sight, proves to have a logic of its own. In the Protractor Series he playfully deploys geometric guidelines to take him from a simple arrangement of irregular planimetric forms to stereometric shapes. By dint of the curvature of the stripes and the tonality of the colors the pictorial layers appear to be stacked, without illusionistic techniques being applied to the space. Lines, colors, and color chords are used to create relief-like sequences—with no representational meaning—that appear to be relational without this actually being the case. 


The Polish Village Series synthesizes the pictorial structures of the Irregular Polygons and the Protractor Series. Eccentric forms and rising and falling planes like ramps, all a consequence of the inner logic of the composition and hovering somewhere between two- and three-dimensionality, give the relief height and depth which evolves yet further in the Exotic Bird Series creating the effect of an association-free soundscape. This juxtaposition shows very clearly that pictorial composition is a paradox for Frank Stella. On one hand it can be perceived as a self-contained entity, more or less static, on the other hand it may appear “open,” apparently expansively instantaneous. Every apparently settled creation also obstructs its own determinism, as Frank Stella hints in the collective title Concentric Squares. The concept is taken from Denis Diderot’s story Jacques the Fatalist, about a man for whom the world is both perfectly explicable and puzzling. In the Indian Bird Series and the Cones and Pillars Series the artist demonstrates that illusionistic pictorial processes do not need to be imitative per se, but that by upturning the usual premises they give access to an undreamt of freedom in the spatialization of internal pictorial volumes. Meanwhile in the Moby Dick Series and the Wave Series Frank Stella finds a way to liquefy pictorial forms. Taking a lead from the architectural avant-garde of the 1920s and its indifference to space as such, one might call these “neutral paintings” in the sense that they create a continuum wherein the picture is perceived in the same way that one might absorb a polyphonic melody.


Over the years the parameters established in the Black Paintings have withstood the test of time. In the same sense that they were entirely free of associative pictorial motifs, in Stella’s later work any such motifs are presented as pure form. In the sculptures he has been making since 1990s, Stella has created a new synthesis from the by now extended basis of his work. The monumental paintings and sculptures that make up the Moby Dick Series refine an open, floating pictoriality with the invention of fluid, apparently ephemeral pictorial forms. These pass by like the clouds or swathes of smoke that have fascinated the artist since 1990. The smoke ring is a fleeting form which can be defined as such but which will change in an entirely unpredictable manner. Once again Stella reverses a particular pictorial technique to produce an instantaneous-looking result. So when he “pours” metals for his sculptures, he avails himself of the same freedom that Jackson Pollock enjoyed when he was pouring and dripping paint in order to create a non-intentional pictorial structure. Because Stella is operating within certain logical parameters, a picture arises and even the huge amounts of only partially controllable liquid stainless steel that he uses never end up as unformed lumps. At the same time, the resulting forms can not be defined as volumes or spatial structures in Euclidian terms. In effect they appear to be two-and-a-half-dimensional. By this means Stella manages to circumvent the term “spatiality” which—as Martin Heidegger has said rather less conciliatingly—is a “vulgar” expression of temporality. The heterogeneous components of Stella’s visual art since the 1990s can be read as the elements in a continuum of simultaneous temporality which comes together in a polyhponic whole. Thus the Hudson River Valley Series and some of the reliefs in the Heinrich von Kleist Series can be understood metaphorically as landscapes of a higher kind. And it seems only natural that Frank Stella now also combines sculptures with landscape and architecture, as we can see in his models for monumental sculptures. And this is confirmed by his interest in architectural and garden design projects, such as the “Dresden Project,” which was very much planned by Stella as a Gesamtkunstwerk.





What draws Stella to authors such as Heinrich von Kleist, Denis Diderot, and Margaret Mead is their interest in the anthropological make-up of the human being and the unforeseen events that suddenly intervene in human lives like a bolt from the sky. The context is comparable to the artistic process and the stimulus to make art, which is a mixture of pure chance and planning. Frank Stella has taken and continues to take his forms from everyday life. His gestural language, actions, treatment of objects and the stuff of life itself are juxtaposed with human emotion and pictorial logic and posit an alternative stance in the reality of the composition, as the series of Bali Pieces demonstrates with such consummate mastery.



Franz-Joachim Verspohl